Simple, Seasonal & Sweet!

By: Samantha TenEyck

The moment I was told I would be completing my food service rotation with the VA Maryland Health Care System I knew it would be a great fit. Three major facilities form the VA Maryland Health Care System, Baltimore, Loch Raven and Perry Point VA Medical Centers. Luckily, I had the ability to observe each facilities’ Food Service Department and appreciate their different cooking and dining procedures. I was fortunate enough to serve our Veterans in a variety of unique settings, with a slew of educational resources at my fingertips. Although my experiences at each location were noteworthy, as many of my fellow interns know, I have quite the sweet tooth. As a result, I chose to focus on the baking demonstration I conducted at Perry Point Medical Center.

Perry Point Medical Center is the largest inpatient facility within the VA Maryland Health Care System. Although this facility is known for delivering mental health care to our Veterans, the medical center provides a comprehensive range of inpatient and outpatient services. One service that is offered to Veterans at this facility, and throughout the VA Maryland Health Care System, is the MOVE! Weight Loss program. The MOVE! program offers its members a series of classes comprised of nutrition and physical activity education managed by a dietitian.

Every Thursday, Mr. Richard Blue, the main cook at Perry Point, works with the Dietitian to create a demonstration for the MOVE! program’s “Healthy Teaching Kitchen.” The Healthy Teaching Kitchen demonstration is a segment of the MOVE! classes that aim to improve the Veteran’s cooking skills and nutrition knowledge. In the attempts to educate and promote behavior change in the Veterans, these demonstrations generally involve recipes that focus on a variety of disease states. With the holiday season approaching, I chose to use the opportunity to plan, execute, and demonstrate two holiday desserts. Mr. Blue, who knows the MOVE! program members quite well, felt it would be beneficial for me to create desserts appropriate for individuals living with diabetes.

After completing some recipe research, Mr. Blue and I decided to go with an apple pie crumble pastry and a no-crust sweet potato pie. I tried to create recipes varying in skill level, one being an easier dessert for a beginner cook and the other a bit more difficult.  Samples are made prior to the Healthy Teaching Kitchen for the Veterans to taste, so it was time to get baking! To begin, I converted the recipes to yield twenty desserts and began gathering the ingredients. At Perry Point, ingredients are held in the basement storage area and measured in the portioning room. In order to save the cook time, ingredients for each meal are gathered and portioned in the basement and transported upstairs to the kitchen.

Mr. Blue oriented me with the kitchen and we got started by baking our sweet potatoes in the oven and steaming our sliced apples. While the apples were steaming, I worked on creating the sweet oat crumble and molding the puff pastries into mini pies. Once the apple mixture formed into a thick, warm slurry, I portioned the apples into the puff pastries, topped with crumble and pinched the dough, forming ready-to-bake mini pies.

After the sweet potatoes were baked, I removed the skins and placed the potatoes into a mixer. Although Mr. Blue gave me tidbits of advice throughout the entire baking process, he said the most important thing he would tell me all day was this: a sweet potato pie with strings is not a sweet potato pie. After being sure I removed all the strings, I added the additional seasonings, eggs and milk forming a smooth mixture. Simple as that, my crustless sweet potato pie was ready to bake!

In order to prepare for my demonstration, I tidied up the mobile creation station, and took key notes on the steps of the recipes, pertinent nutrition information and some baking tips and tricks I found to be helpful. For example, I spoke with the program members about the high fiber content of sweet potatoes. By chatting about the relationship between the recipe and specific nutrient benefits, I was able to facilitate a discussion about the significance of fiber intake among individuals with diabetes. Another talking point we discussed during the demonstration was the potential benefits and drawbacks of non-nutritive sweeteners. The members were very intrigued by this subject, as many diabetic recipes call for the use of non-nutritive sweeteners, such as Splenda or Truvia. One member stated that the “research is always changing with these things,” which is true of most nutrition research. I explained to the members that nutrition research for many topics, including artificial sweeteners, is still in its early stages. I could tell that the members were concerned by this, so I began by sharing my knowledge of the five non-nutritive sweeteners that have been considered “Generally Recognized as Safe” by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ensure that the members had a resource to refer to in the future. I informed the members that products containing non-nutritive sweeteners can be used to replace sugary food and drinks in order to prevent hyperglycemia in individuals with type 2 diabetes. However, since non-nutritive sweeteners offer little to no nutritional value or calories, regularly consuming or incorrectly substituting these products could become problematic. A large component of the MOVE! program is teaching members how to grocery shop and properly label read. To conclude my discussion on non-nutritive sweeteners, I addressed the importance of reading artificial sweetener labels. Often times, non-nutritive sweeteners undergo chemical changes at high temperatures. Therefore, to ensure safe consumption, I recommended that members read the product label carefully and adjust the recipe as needed.

I am quite certain the program members who attended the baking demonstration learned a lot, as did I. I learned that rather than simply lecturing information into the audience, it is beneficial to shift back and forth from nutrition education and demonstrating to maintain the members interest. I also found that by providing the Veterans with educational materials to take away, such as the recipes and nutrition information I spoke about, they could focus on the demonstration, take notes, and most of all, enjoy their dessert samples!

Overall, the demonstration was a wonderful way for members not only to learn cooking skills and nutrition education from a cook and a Registered Dietitian, but one another. It was incredibly empowering to see the Veterans connecting with one another through nutrition to improve their health and wellness. The MOVE! members are very enthusiastic about the changes they make and achieving their goals. For that reason, I believe the MOVE! program will continue to be an advantageous resource for Veterans across the VA Administration.

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